The Local and European elections in 2014 were seen by many commentators to have been an expression of widespread public dissatisfaction with politicians and the political institutions. Similar observations are being made about the current US Presidential elections. There are politicians and political organisations which recognise the need to reconnect people with politicians and the political institutions. They recognise that there could be serious consequences if the public continues to feel alienated from the political process. The starting point is to define what constitutes a good democracy.
Democracy should embrace three key principles – representativeness, accountability and democratic engagement.
Representativeness requires those elected to be representative in ideological terms of the electorate. Within the London Borough of Hounslow decision-making bodies such as an Area Forum should, as far as possible, be representative of the electorate in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and religion.
Accountability requires that the electorate can hold those elected to account for their decisions. Real accountability makes people feel closer to governing institutions and empowers them. It also has the potential to improve the policy decisions of those in power. Clear lines of accountability should exist between citizens and those who make policy on their behalf in order to guarantee this.
Democratic engagement requires clear channels of engagement at the ballot box and beyond. “Democracy” is rule by the people. Elections are a requirement for democracy, but elections without the free interchange of views between citizens, civil society and elected representatives leads to a pseudo democracy – the institutions and form of a democracy, without the content. The quality of a democracy can be measured by the level of participation, engagement and trust in that democracy.
There should be proper dialogue between the community and civil society at all times – not just during the four weeks leading up to an election.
The opportunity to speak in an Area Forum is limited to 5 minutes. Where borough residents raise issues in the public forum there is generally no response on the night and no follow-up action taken.
The public may not speak at an Area Forum on planning matters even though this is the issue of most concern to borough residents.
The opportunity to speak at Planning Committee meetings is again limited to five minutes while the planning officer can take as long as s/he wants. There is very little real debate and the process is heavily waited in favour of the Planning Officer.
Emails to both Officers and Members are frequently ignored.
Complaints are regularly ignored until follow-up correspondence is sent.
FOI requests are routinely ignored unless follow-up correspondence is sent.
Consultations with the public are often carried out just because they are a legal requirement. Any response to a consultation which does not accord with the views of Council Officers is usually ignored.